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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 16 July 2018

Antoine Griezmann puts friendships on hold when France face Uruguay in World Cup quarter-final

Atletico Madrid forward is close friends with Godin and Gimenez, who will be tasked with keeping him quiet on Friday

France's Antoine Griezmann smiles as he warms up during a training session at the 2018 soccer World Cup in Glebovets, Russia, Wednesday, July 4, 2018. (AP Photo/David Vincent)
France's Antoine Griezmann smiles as he warms up during a training session at the 2018 soccer World Cup in Glebovets, Russia, Wednesday, July 4, 2018. (AP Photo/David Vincent)

Friendship means talking frankly, even when the words sound harsh. Antoine Griezmann has forecast a World Cup quarter-final between his France and Uruguay which might not always be easy on the eye.

Griezmann candidly predicted: “It’s going to be niggly,” and described how his opponents will break up the rhythm of France’s football. “They will fall over, they’ll waste time, they’ll never let up, they’ll be going at the referee; that’s their game.”

Griezmann, telling this to reporters, knew exactly what response his words would stimulate from the chief enforcers of Uruguay’s gameplan, a strategy based on containment and counter-attack.

Diego Godin and Jose Maria Gimenez, the central defenders who protect a record that reads just the one goal conceded since last November by the bruisers in sky-blue, are long-time teammates of the France striker at Atletico Madrid. They are also two of his very best friends. They will have smiled hearing and reading his remarks.

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Godin is godfather to Griezmann’s daughter, a near neighbour in the Spanish capital and ever since Griezmann first joined Atletico from Real Sociedad in the summer of 2014, they have been on one another’s wavelength.

Griezmann says he feels "a bit Uruguayan", so much time has he spent in the company of Godin, 32, and Gimenez, 23, the defenders who have, in partnership, established at Atletico European club football’s meanest defence.

In their company, Griezmann has developed his taste for maté, the distinctively South American tea that is emblematic of that part of the continent. Godin gave him an ornate, gold and silver maté flask when they first became club colleagues, and Griezmann sips from it like a native of Montevideo. Godin tells him he plays football like a Uruguayan, too, indefatigable, determined, never-say-die.

There will, of course, be no indications of friendship in between kick-off and final whistle in Nizhny Novgorod. “He knows me very well, and I know all about him,” said Griezmann of Godin.

Godin and Gimenez will be as expertly prepared as any marker can be for Griezmann’s turn of pace, his sharpness with an angled shot, and the methods they apply to suffocating and second-guessing France’s senior striker.

Griezmann and his teenaged partner, Kylian Mbappe, are among the most compelling aspects of a quarter-final that may well, as Griezmann suggests, be niggly and stop-start for long periods, but should be gripping throughout.

Uruguay have had a setback, though. They seem unlikely to call on the services, for anything like 90 minutes, of Edinson Cavani, who pulled a calf muscle after scoring both his country’s goals in the 2-1 win over Portugal that put Uruguay into the last eight. Cristhian Stuani has been readied to play as Luis Suarez’s attacking partner.

“Uruguay are not so strong without Cavani,” remarked Griezmann, a frank observation nobody can take issue with. This time a year ago, Stuani had just been relegated from the English Premier League with Middlesbrough, although he had a fruitful 2017-18 with Girona in the Spanish top flight.

Paris Saint-Germain’s Cavani has meanwhile been Ligue 1’s leading goalscorer in both the last two seasons and has registered his 43rd, 44th and 45th international goals at this World Cup. The last time Stuani scored for his country in a competitive match was in November 2013.

Some extra work, then, for the industrious Suarez leading the line in a team whose opportunities to carry the ball into France’s half may be limited. But, for Suarez, any opportunity to spearhead his country in the later knockout phase of a World Cup is a precious one.

Four years ago, he finished the group stage banned, for having bitten Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini, a suspension that stretched well beyond Uruguay’s losing last-16 match. Eight years ago, he finished Uruguay’s quarter-final against Ghana sent off, for the deliberate handball just in front of the goalline that prevented an almost certain match-winner for the Ghanaians.

This time, Suarez has not so much as been booked. Indeed, Uruguay, whose notoriety for roughhouse football goes back half a century, have received just one yellow card all tournament. Habits have certainly changed since a Uruguayan, José Batista, set a World Cup record for getting sent off 56 seconds into a match, back in 1986 against Scotland.

Veteran manager Oscar Tabarez, whose three previous World Cups with Uruguay featured 28 bookings and three red cards, has made a point of telling his players to be more watchful of their discipline. They listened.

Yet, as Griezmann implied, it is probably too early to starting handing out Fair Play awards because on Friday there will be some theatrics, some studied slowing down of play, some chatter with the referee.

And there will be bruises left on Griezman’s limbs by some of his best friends.